Federer Loses 2009 Australian Open Final

23:58 Mon 02 Feb 2009
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I watched the final on Saturday night/Sunday morning, and it was quite a painful experience.

Before the tournament, I thought that Federer would win. In the early rounds, I began to have some doubts, because of how well Nadal was playing. After the quarterfinals and semifinals, however, I felt that Federer was on form, and that if he were on form he’d take it from Nadal.

Both players were nervous and playing loosely in the first few games, exchanging breaks in the first few games. Neither of them really got it together, but there was a run of good play that ended with Nadal getting the critical break and winning 7-5. I thought that Federer was playing okay, and that his serve was off, but in the second set it looked like Nadal was fading a little, and some excellence at the right times brought him that set 6-3. At the time I was shocked that he managed to hold onto his serve enough to win it—his first-serve percentage for that set was an amazingly bad 37. The third set was critical, because Nadal somehow managed to fend off five break points, including three in a row, in (I think) the tenth game, to force the tiebreak. Which he won quite easily.

The tiebreak was a microcosm of the entire match, I thought. Federer looked stronger coming into the tiebreak, having put Nadal under more pressure throughout the set. And he won the first point with strong play. But then he gave the minibreak right back with an unforced error, and at 2-3 lost another point on serve, a critical one that allowed Nadal to go ahead 6-3. So Federer is serving at 3-6; if he wins his two points on serve, Nadal is under pressure at 6-5, knowing that he only has one set point left. Federer then double faulted. To lose the set. A set that he really should have won.

He didn’t fold under that pressure, in fact Nadal let up a little at the start of the fourth, and Federer took it 6-3. Going into the fifth, Federer had the momentum, and was probably the fresher player. Solid tennis would probably give him the title. He starts well, with a strong service game. But then his form deserts him, and Nadal runs away with the set, winning 6-2. In fact, he broke Federer to take it, and, worse, Federer double-faulted to give away the match.

Nadal played solid tennis with flashes of absolute brilliance, and his mental toughness was phenomenal. Federer played streakily, but in the end simply didn’t have the grit to fight through the form that had deserted him (particularly in terms of his serve). I used to think that Nadal wasn’t in his head (except at the French), and that on hard courts Federer would still take him (thinking of Shanghai in 2008 and 2007, where Federer took him out in straight sets). But now I’ve revised that opinion, because I just don’t think that Federer would have played so poorly against any other player in the world. Furthermore, I don’t think that he played (and served) so poorly because Nadal’s play on the day forced him into it.

His first-serve percentage for the match was 51. Fifty-one! I can’t seem to find stats on what it normally is, but my impression is that he’s normally in the high sixties. In this match, he couldn’t seem to find that serve, and it mattered hugely at the critical points.

The match has changed my opinion as far as the “greatest of all time” debate goes, also, and in a way I don’t particularly like. Prior to this, I felt that Federer was already the greatest of all time, and that breaking the Grand Slam wins record would merely be confirmation of this that others wouldn’t be able to deny. Now I’m not so sure. Having seen this match, and his collapse in it, I think that if he never wins another Slam—which I think he will, but if he doesn’t—then I probably won’t consider him the best of all time. This is irksome, because I’ve never liked Pete Sampras, or his style of play (despite alleged similarities to Federer), and I don’t want to think of him as the best of all time, particularly when Roger Federer’s game is so beautiful, and when his dominance over the last few years has been so utterly ridiculous.

But watching the Australian Open final, and particularly the fifth set, I began to wonder whether or not Pete Sampras had ever collapsed like that in a Grand Slam final. Against Safin in 2000, he was overpowered, and didn’t put up a huge fight. Against Hewitt the following year, he didn’t seem to have much, and was in the twilight of his career (despite winning it in 2002). Those were both straight-sets losses. In other words, he was never really in the match. But collapsing when he was in the match and could clearly have won it? I don’t remember his 1992 loss to Edberg, but that was four sets.

Is it worse to collapse when you clearly have a shot, or to be outclassed enough so that you didn’t have a chance to win? I don’t know, but Federer’s fifth set self-destruction in the final seems worse to me than his 2008 French Open loss to Nadal. So now I wonder if the Sampras record has to be respected (in terms of the greatest of all time question) simply because of the mental toughness it takes to win that much, even if he was a far less complete (or breathtaking) player than Federer.

On the subject both of mental toughness and the greatest of all time, Nadal’s achievement is unbelievable. At 22 he has already won six Grand Slam titles. He currently holds three of the four Grand Slam titles, missing only the US Open, and has to be considered a legitimate shot to pull off the Grand Slam this year, since betting against him at the French would be insane, and since he dominated everyone at Wimbledon last year except Federer, who (it looks like) can’t really be relied upon to stop him. As for his mental toughness, he demonstrated it amply in succeeding against Verdasco, and in resisting Federer in the third, and in not falling apart after the fourth. Of course, it had already been established as indomitable given that he didn’t collapse in the fifth at Wimbledon.

An awful lot will happen before that, and I think that Federer is still a favorite for Wimbledon, no matter how his form is until then. But Federer is in a very tough spot. For any other player, any other, runner-up at the Australian Open is not merely a huge achievement, but is seen as a stepping-stone. Djokovic’s final appearance at the 2007 US Open was seen that way, and he himself saw it that way. Murray saw his own appearance in the 2008 US Open similarly. If Nadal had lost the Australian Open final, the talk would have been about how he’ll be closer to getting there next year. If Roddick had made the final and lost to Nadal, people would talk about how it meant he was more of a threat for Wimbledon and/or the US Open this year. And he himself would see it that way. All of them would have rued the lost chance, but still seen it also as something to build upon.

Not Federer. For Federer alone, the loss is just a loss. He’s won three times there already, and with five US Open titles he already has eight Grand Slam titles on hard courts. So he’s done it before. The overwhelming sense one gets is that it’s a failure—this is the “monster” he talked about last year, and while I think that he himself retains a much healthier perspective, it must be incredibly hard to know that that’s how the world is viewing your success in getting to the final—as a letdown, a defeat without a silver lining.

I hope he recovers from that, that he shrugs off the ridiculous expectations and relaxes, and gets Nadal out of his head, and continues to play sublime tennis for many years to come. I hope that he does so in such a fashion to bring him many more Grand Slam titles. Even if he doesn’t, he is already among the all-time greats, and has the most beautiful tennis game I’m ever likely to see. But, damn, that last makes it really hard to watch him lose…

6 Responses to “Federer Loses 2009 Australian Open Final”

  1. Niall Says:

    He’s on the way out, I’m afraid – as I predicted when Nadal crushed him in straight sets last year.

    Champions simply don’t lose sets 6-0.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Here are three things that present problems for your argument:
    1. Nadal has lost 0-6 to Federer in two finals, the 2006 Wimbledon final and the 2007 Hamburg final (on clay!), but it’s not really possibly to argue that he isn’t (or wasn’t then) a “champion”.
    2. Federer’s Wimbledon 2008 performance. Yes, he lost, but he showed tremendous grit and heart and skill throughout it, and I really don’t think that losing possibly the best tennis match ever can really be used as evidence of being unchampionlike.
    3. Federer’s US Open 2008 win. If he can win Grand Slams while being “on the way out” and “not a champion”, what do those things mean? His period of ludicrous dominance is clearly over, but the question is how many Grand Slam titles he’s going to pick up over the rest of his career. If it’s more than zero, or especially more than one, it will be tough to argue that he’s not the greatest player of all time, which seems a reasonable accomplishment for one’s career, and further a remarkable accomplishment to cement after one is over the hill…

  3. Niall Says:

    1. That was 06-07, this is now. I’m arguing that their rivalry has turned a corner, and that Federer has now essentially peaked.

    2. If losing perhaps the most important match of your career can’t be used as evidence of being unchampionlike, what can?

    I’m not arguing Fed isn’t a great player. He clearly still is. The question is whether or not he’ll ever be a meaningful champion again (and there could be a couple of metrics for this – e.g. another few grand slams, becoming number one again.)

    3. This is it, though. I’ll bet you $10 that he only wins any more Grand Slams if they don’t have Nadal (or insert other threatening player for him such as Murray) in them.

    I think he’s psychologically cracked.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    I also think that Fed has passed his peak. However, that still leaves him in the running for “greatest of all time” honors, and the total Grand Slam titles number is a reasonable metric for this. I would also love to see him reclaim the number one spot, but right now that looks less likely to me than his winning more GS titles. However, I wouldn’t say a “few” more Grand Slams would be required—just one gets him the tie with Sampras, just two gets him the record. I would also argue that any GS win is a “meaningful championship”.

    I don’t think that losing the 2008 Wimbledon final can be used as evidence that he’s not a true champion because the overall quality of play, on both sides, was too high, and Federer displayed tremendous heart in it. If the only criteria for being championlike is winning, then the term is essentially meaningless.

    I think that Federer can still beat Murray at Grand Slams. I don’t think anyone in the world should be favored over him in a Grand Slam match other than Nadal. I don’t know if Federer can get past Nadal in a Grand Slam again, but I think it’s possible. However, Nadal also has to make it to Federer for that to be meaningful. I assume you mean that Federer won’t win any more GS finals if he faces Nadal or Murray (rather than winning Slams where they are simply in the draw); I think that he could. I’m a little reluctant to take a bet that requires Federer to beat Nadal or Murray in a Grand Slam final because that requires such a final to occur, and there’s no guarantee of that. I think he has at least two Grand Slam wins left in him, though.

  5. Caliph Dua Says:

    Full match can be watched from here:


  6. Krish4791 Says:

    I know, this is an incredibly late reply (3 years on!), but I think Federer still has what it takes to win a major – his 17th. In 2012 he’s already won 3 titles in a row (including his first one at Indian Wells since 2006) and he’s still looking good. Djokovic is now the world no. 1, and he’s posing real problems for Nadal – the Serbian has won all of their last 7 meetings since the beginning of 2011. It’s almost like a triangle of sorts now – Federer tends to beat Djokovic more, who in turn beats Nadal, who in turn can beat Federer. The point is, Federer still seems to have the mindset of a champion, and who knows, perhaps he could snatch a title or two this year.

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